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British intervention in Spanish American independence

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The British intervention in the Spanish American wars of independence was the military, political and diplomatic attitudes adopted by the United Kingdom, and also the attitude of its merchants and private citizens during the course of South American Wars of Independence. The involvement of Great Britain in the war between the Spanish monarchy and the insurgents or revolutionaries was ambiguous and changing, and obeyed various interests, both private and state, which did not always coincide.[1]

British intervention in Spanish American independence
LocationUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; Spanish Empire
CauseSpanish American wars of independence
MotiveColonialism and Mercantilism[1]
TargetSoldiers and sailors recruited in United Kingdom for insurgency. Sales of warships, weapons and ammunition.[2]
ParticipantsBritish volunteers
end of the eventForeign Enlistment Act of 1819
Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (1816-1837).svg



The process of Spanish-American independence was developed in a context of international rivalry of colonial powers that involved Spain, the United States, France and the United Kingdom. The Spanish government recognized the United Kingdom as the main adversary state in the dispute of Spanish America.[3] The result of the European Napoleonic wars led to great changes between the alliances of these powers.

Between 1806-1807 the United Kingdom invaded the River Plate in South America which were still part of Spain. The first invasion had several contingents, of about one thousand seven hundred soldiers. This was followed up with a second of up to fourteen thousand men, twenty warships and ninety transports. They managed to occupy the city of Buenos Aires and then Montevideo but were finally evicted by the colonial militias. While both of these ended in defeat it provided a catalyst for the growth of discontent with Spanish rule in the River Plate.[4] George Canning as Foreign Office secretary (1807–09) became deeply involved in the affairs of Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

On May 2, 1808, however Napoleon Bonaparte's army entered Spain which led to the Peninsular War. This reconfigured the alliances between the European powers. King Ferdinand VII stayed in Bayonne and Joseph Bonaparte took the Spanish throne, which broke the state pact between France and Spain, previously installed, by the family pacts of the Bourbon kings. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, was preparing to fight the Napoleonic imperial forces in the Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish fleet which had been left crippled after the Battle of Trafalgar had a few sea worthy going ships. These remaining ships together with a controversial purchase of Russian ships, would be the only naval link with the overseas colonies in that period.

The colonial status quo seemed to be guaranteed in 1809, when a pact was signed between the Spanish government and the United Kingdom, which established aid against the French invasion. This agreement was ambiguous with regard to South America, since the efforts of Bonaparte they felt they didn't need to invade Spanish territory there. A weakened Spain distracted and virtually cut off from her colonies, meant that insurrections there would flare up. The Royal Navy nevertheless were allowed to reach Spanish ports of both hemispheres. Thus, while the American revolutionaries rejected the French commissioners, and their adhesion to Napoleonic Spain, the British improved their own colonial interests.

The diplomatic conflict took another step after the restoration of Ferdinand VII in 1813. The following year, the separation of the River Plate was assured once the fall of Montevideo was achieved.

Military supportEdit

Violation of neutralityEdit

The United Kingdom had declared neutrality which was the policy of Lord Castlereagh's government. This was to keep Spain separate from the French post-Napoleonic period, which was feared would break the European balance of power whilst the British wanted to preserve their colonial interests around the world. Consequently, the United Kingdom rejected the requests of the revolutionary commissioners to recognize their independence but would offer military and financial support allowed under British law. The British declined any agreement with the Spanish government that would ensure the continual rule of their South American territories, partly in order to monopolise the important emerging markets of South America.[5]

In 1817 a recruitment programme began in Great Britain of military personnel for service of the Revolutionary forces in South America. During the next two years, the government of London had to overcome the demands of the Spanish government for the extensive enlistment of British officers, sailors and soldiers. London counted on the British public for sympathy and support for the recruitment to the patriot cause, which would help alleviate the 500,000 British, Irish and German ex-soldiers after the fall of Napoleon. A large number of these veterans of the Napoleonic wars were thus unemployed.[6]

However, the international obligations, of a declared policy of neutrality, were inconsistent with the large number of British combatants to fight from the United Kingdom and its colonies, against Spain's own colonies in South America. Before 1817 a few British had participated in early phases of the struggle in different parts of America, mostly isolated, but relevant actions, such as in the Rio de la Plata. Nevertheless the systematic recruitment in Britain began in April 1817, to fight for Simón Bolívar. The circumstances were very favourable, with the help of Venezuelan agents and adventurers such as Gregor McGregor, British officers and sergeants were recruited forming their own regiments.[7]

This violation of neutrality was protested by the Spanish commissioners led by Joaquin Campuzano in July of that year.[8] The Foreign Office however denied any illegal act whilst Castlereagh tried to minimize the problem, assuring the Spanish that these were specific cases, without employment.[5] At the beginning of September, many active officers requested permission to travel to South America, and the commander in chief of the army, the Duke of York, raised his doubts about the convenience of allowing those officers to proceed with the embarkation. Castlereagh, imposed the distinction between "prohibit" and "not grant permission", in the contrary opinion of George Canning. Castlereagh referred to his lawmakers, who said that although the foreign service had been banned, the old laws did not seem applicable to unrecognised states such as in South America. The stubborn attitude of Ferdinand VII actually helped the British play their hand. He refused to consider making any concessions to the Revolutionaries which caused the British government to regard with more friendly eyes the prospect of South American Independence.[9]

During September, the recruitment was already well-known and public, and newspapers gave details of troops and war material in ships destined towards South America. The protests of the Spanish ambassador, Duke of San Carlos became more insistent.[10] Castlereagh refused to deal with a royal proclamation against enlistment in Britain, which would leave the insurgents helpless. He claimed that this prohibition was irreconcilable with British public opinion, without introducing, at the same time, mediation and free trade in Britain with the Spanish colonies.[5]

British arms traffickingEdit

Volunteers, sailors and British soldiers contributed decisively to the independence of the rebel nations. The revolutionaries themselves however with their resurgence from 1815 onwards were also helped by arms and ammunition that were supplied to them from the United Kingdom and its colonies that allowed the creation and equipping of new patriotic regular armies.[2] With Britain's complete control of the seas Britain's colonies in the Caribbean notably Jamaica and Trinidad made arms trafficking far easier to accomplish and the excess arms made during the Napoleonic war by Britain meant that these were cheap and readily available.[11] British merchants both in the Caribbean and in Europe gave loans and supplies that enabled Bolivar to secure the means to carry out further campaigns.[9]

Arms Traffic 1815 - 1825
'Type of weapons' 'Quantities'
musket balls
4,508 tons
10,254 tons

Terrestrial War in South AmericaEdit

Battle of Boyacá, 1819 - the British Legion played a crucial part in Bolivar's victory over Spanish forces.

From 1817 recruitment for service in South America took place in the United Kingdom. Many were veterans of the Napoleonic and colonial British wars and left their country to fight for Bolivar. The British Legions were composed of the 1st British Legion, the 2nd British Legion and the Irish Legion. They formed the battalions of infantry Albion, Carabobo and Rifles, regiments of cavalry like the Hussars, although their members also fought in other South American units.

The units of the Legion used their own banners, such as the Union Flag for the English, or in the case of the Irish Legion a green flag with the clàrsach, symbol of Ireland.[12]

The British Legions were to become an important part of Bolívar's army. They played a pivotal role in the Vargas Swamp Battle on July 25, 1819. Bolivar credited them with the victory at the subsequent Battle of Boyacá on August 7, 1819, saying "those soldier-liberators are the men who deserve these laurels" and awarded with the ‘Order of the Liberator’ one of the rare occasions during the war when this decoration was bestowed onto an entire unit. At the Battle of Carabobo Thomas Ildeston Farriar, at the head of the British rifles, contributed decisively to the patriot triumph. Bolivar described the Legions and all who served in them as "the saviours of my country".[13] As a reward for their service, they were given the Carabobo battle honour, and all its personnel rewarded with the Liberators' Star by Bolívar himself, 20 days after the battle.

With independence for Columbia and Venezuela secure the Legions took part in the march across the Andes South and next fought at the Pichincha in May 1822, which secured independence for and Ecuador.[14] They also took part of the last major campaign of the Independence wars in 1824, culminating in the battles of Junín and Ayacucho in Peru, which marked the end of the Spanish rule in South America. The British Legions fought until the end of the wars, their number much depleted. Nonetheless, for a long time they were largely forgotten to history.[15]

Other British and Irish soldiers joined the ranks of Bolivar's forces. Two most notable officers were William Miller who's cavalry led the decisive charge at the Battle of Junin in 1824 and Francis Burdett O'Connor who later became chief of staff to Antonio José de Sucre.[16]

Chile and the Pacific OceanEdit

Statue of Lord Cochrane in Valparaiso, Chile

The navy list in 1818 -the year that Cochrane arrived in Chile- was dominated by British names, and in 1820 the majority of the fifty officers, and 1,600 sailors in the new Chilean Navy were from Britain.[17] William Edmunson

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British Royal Navy had a huge number of warships approximately 713. With the needs of a European post-war economy the United Kingdom was forced to demobilize most of these ships, with 134 ships remaining by 1820. The rest were sold to individuals, and companies with about 250 warships available to the insurgent governments, carrying the most modern weapons of the time. In addition, many British sailors and captains also went into the service of those ships to South America. One of those ships and captains was John Illingworth, commanding the Rosa de los Andes, classified as a sixth rate warship by the Royal Navy. This ship hired by the revolutionary government of Chile for the naval campaigns of independence had on board the most famous Royal Naval sailor of the time - Scotsman Lord Thomas Cochrane. He arrived in Chile in 1818, the language and laws governing the vessel were determined by the nationality of its captain. When Cochrane was sent to command the Chilean fleet, he decided to remove the rest of the Chilean sailors as he distrusted them. Instead he replaced them with British or North American officers so that the squadron was governed under British laws with only English being spoken.[18]

Working in coordination with Chilean leader Bernardo O'Higgins Cochrane and his fleet blockaded and raided the coasts of Chile, as he had done so successfully with those of France and Spain.

Cochrane's greatest achievement was the capture of the forts of Valdivia on 4 February 1820. The seizure effectively ended the last vestiges of Spanish power in mainland Chile. A vast haul of military plunder was taken.[19]

Under the orders of General José de San Martín Cochrane blockaded the coast of Peru in support of the campaign for independence. He conveyed the Liberation Army from Valparaíso and disembarked 100 miles southeast of Lima which was liberated the following year. On 5 November Cochrane captured the Spanish frigate Esmeralda the most powerful Spanish ship in South America within the port of Callao and was renamed Valdivia for the Chilean Navy.[20]

Cochrane then attempted to find other Spanish ships and after a pursuit of five months, he blockaded them in the port of Guayaquil. They surrendered to the authorities of the port afterwich he left Chilean service in November 1822.[21]

Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819Edit

In the face of Spanish diplomatic pressure, Castlereagh supported all his action based on the previous British law. This affirmed that he could only open proceedings against convicts in British courts, which prohibited service abroad, in favor of a prince, state or potentate. The prosecutors did not believe that the Revolutionaries fitted any of those categories, since they were not recognized states. The Lord Chancellor, Earl of Eldon, was consulted on this which held the view that rebel governments could only be considered as a sovereign subject before the British courts, when their sovereignty has been recognized by the British government. For Castlereagh, this placed his government in a dilemma against public opinion, since it made Britain's neutrality impossible, either by recognizing an independence prematurely, or accusing the British of helping the insurgents. Therefore he concluded that a new law was required, but deferred, since it was not convenient to discuss it publicly in the parliament of the United Kingdom in 1818, while the war had not been yet been decided in favour with the potential possibility of mediation.[22]

The decisive years of the 1817 and 1818 war ended favourably with patriotic governments. Finally, the law was presented in parliament on May 13, 1819 to prohibit the enlistment or commitment of individuals to serve abroad or equipment for military purposes, without the license.[23] By this time however approximately 6,500 had volunteered their service in the South American Armies and many more in the Navies. In addition to the enlistment ban other clauses were made; provisions for the trial, detention of ships carrying recruits and armament of warships for foreign service. What's more despite the law being passed there was no intention of ever enforcing it.[24]

George Canning

San Carlos communicated to Madrid that he believed that formality and appearance were maintained only to gain time. Castlereagh's greatest achievement was to settle a deal with the European powers at the Congress of Aix-La-Chapelle and the Congress of Verona four years later. Both combined meant that no military force other than Spain's would be sent to South America. This effectively blocked aid to Spain which inhibited her reconquest of the region.[23] With the Royal Navy in command of the oceans this set the precedence - they were a decisive factor in the struggle for independence of certain Latin American countries.[25]

Canning's RoleEdit

In August 1822, Castlereagh committed suicide. Canning succeeded him as both Foreign Secretary in his second term of office and Leader of the House of Commons. In effect Canning carried on Castlereagh's legacy to more effect. He wanted to ensure the demise of Spanish colonialism and to make sure that the newly independent Latin American colonies opened to trade as well. In addition Castlereagh wanted to prevent the region coming into the French sphere of influence. In this he was most successful; he oversaw the independence of South and Central America thereby acting in support of the Monroe Doctrine and aiding British merchants to open new markets across the region.[26]

In November 1825 the first minister from a Latin American state, Colombia, was officially received in London.[27]


By this stage Britain by now for several years had walked her tightrope very successfully; she had kept the Spanish as an ally for European affairs,[5] but at the same time British intervention between 1815 - 1819, was one of the key factors for the independence of South American states. Especially important was the rearming of the revolutionary armies, the role of the British Legions in the Bolivar's campaigns,[11] and the role of Lord Cochrane's squadron in Chile's naval campaigns.[28]

In 1926 the Pan-American Centennial Conference (also known as the Congress of Bolivar) took place in Panama City. It celebrated the centenary of the South American movement to Independence, and during the event it was declared that:

Great Britain lent to the liberty of Spanish America not only the support of its diplomacy, represented by Canning, but also an appreciable contingent of blood and it may be asserted that there was no battlefield in the War of Independence in which British blood was not shed."[29][30]


  1. ^ a b Baeza Ruz, Andrés (2017). "Imperio, Estado y Nación en las relaciones entre chilenos y británicos durante el proceso de independencia hispanoamericano, 1806-1831", pages 71 and 72.
  2. ^ a b Blaufarb pp 100-114
  3. ^ Heredia (1972). "Los intereses británicos y los intentos de reconquista de Hispanoamérica Documento - ACUEDI". p. 68. Retrieved 2018-08-20.
  4. ^ Miller p. 27
  5. ^ a b c d Waddell, D. A. G (1987). "British Neutrality and Spanish-American Independence: The Problem of Foreign Enlistment". Journal of Latin American Studies. Cambridge University Press. 19 (1): 1–18. doi:10.1017/S0022216X00017119. JSTOR 156899.
  6. ^ Flores pp 31-32
  7. ^ Slatta & De Grummon p. 178
  8. ^ Albert Shaw Lectures on Diplomatic History. Johns Hopkins Press. 1972. p. 60. ISBN 9780374968212.
  9. ^ a b Keen & Haynes p. 173
  10. ^ Hughes pp 226-27
  11. ^ a b Webster, Charles Kingsley (1938). Britain and the Independence of Latin America, 1812-1830: Select Documents from the Foreign Office Archives, Volume 1. Ibero-American institute of Great Britain. pp. 75–78.
  12. ^ Brown p.116
  13. ^ John Lynch (2007). Simón Bolívar: A Life. Yale University Press. p. 124. ISBN 978-0-300-12604-4.
  14. ^ Studies, Volume 42. 1953. p. 394.
  15. ^ Britain and Latin America, Volume 9, Issue 3. H.M. Stationery Office. 1968. p. 9.
  16. ^ James Dunkerley (2000). Americana: the Americas in the world around 1850. Verso. p. 461. ISBN 978-1-85984-753-4.
  17. ^ A History of the British Presence in Chile. William Edmunson. 2009, published by Palgrave Macmillan
  18. ^ Laughton, Leonard George Carr; Anderson, Charles Roger; Perrin, William Gordon, eds. (2008). "Reviews". The Mariner's Mirror. London: Society for Nautical Research. 94: 358. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  19. ^ Rodriguez p.443
  20. ^ Henty, G. A (1897). With Cochrane the Dauntless: A Tale of the Exploits of Lord Cochrane in South American Waters. Blackie. pp. 253–55.
  21. ^ Rodriguez p. 492
  22. ^ Kaufmann p.121
  23. ^ a b Miller pp 36-7
  24. ^ Rodriguez p.685
  25. ^ Paquette, Gabriel (2004). "The intellectual context of British diplomatic recognition of the South American republics, C. 1800–1830". Journal of Transatlantic Studies. Routledge for the Transatlantic Studies Association. 2 (1): 75–95. doi:10.1080/14794010408656808. ISSN 1479-4012.
  26. ^ Albion, Robert G (2011). "British Shipping and Latin America, 1806–1914". Journal of Economic History. Cambridge University Press. 11 (4): 361–74. doi:10.1017/S0022050700085107.
  27. ^ "SATURDAY NOVEMBER 12 1825". The London Gazette. T. Neuman: 2069. 1825. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  28. ^ Kaufmann p.213
  29. ^ Rodriguez p. 741
  30. ^ Webster, Charles Kingsley, ed. (1970). Correspondence with Latin America Volume 1 of Britain and the Independence of Latin America, 1812-1830: Select Documents from the Foreign Office Archives. Octagon Book. p. 79.


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